If you’re a fan of the handpan you’ve probably heard terms like “Hijaz”, “Kurd”, “SaByeD”, or “Celtic” being used to describe different types of handpans. So, what are these terms and why do handpan players use them?
Let’s dive in.
These are a few of the many names handpan players use to define the different handpan scales or “sound models”. The scale of a handpan is determined by which notes it has and which notes it does not have. Handpans are not chromatic instruments, meaning they can’t play every note possible like a piano or a guitar, but instead are bound to the notes of one single musical scale, like a harmonica, or certain flutes.
If you know a bit about music you might be asking yourself, why don’t handpan players just use normal musical terminology to name their scale like major and minor? Why do I always see these funny names?”
I’ve personally asked that question for many years. Today I use these “funny names” exclusively and here are a few key reasons why.
1. Handpans often lie somewhere between full diatonic scales and just extended chords.
Here’s what I mean by this. Let’s look at the ever-popular “Golden Gate” sound model as an example.
(C) E G B C D F# G
Looking at our notes above this sound model could fit loosely into the definition of the G major scale. But is it fair to call the Golden Gate a G major scale? Well, first of all, we are missing a key element of the G major scale our A! Without this pitch, we don’t even have a complete V chord. (D F# A) Furthermore, our scale begins on G major’s fourth scale degree, C. For this reason, perhaps we could call this scale C Lydian? However, again, we are still missing our A pitch. Additionally, our scale doesn’t move stepwise through either G major, or C Lydian, instead jumping between scale degrees unlike either of these heptatonic scales.
If anything, it might be easiest to think of the Golden Gate scale as just the combination of two major seventh chords. C maj7 (C E G B) and G maj7 (G B D F#)
It’s not just the Golden Gate scale that has trouble fitting into one box, as many other handpan scales have similar difficulties being labeled. By using the name “Golden Gate” we define a more accurate representation of this combination of notes that can’t quite be classified into one existing scale pattern.
2. Interval Patterns and Transposition
The overall emotion of a given scale doesn’t come from the specific pitches, but rather the distances in-between each pitch. These distances are called intervals and are what is responsible for the differences in sound between a major scale and a minor scale, the Dorian mode and the Lydian mode, the various pentatonic scales, and so on. What is important here is knowing that the intervals in a scale stay the same regardless of the resolution point of the scale (tonic). Because of this, we can have a scale start on any given point and the scale will still retain the same overall feeling so long as it follows its interval pattern.
This is one reason why I think handpan specific scale names can be so useful. While all handpan scales can fall under the distinction of the broader umbrella of a parent key, only the handpan scale name conveys the specific interval structure of its scale pattern.
Let’s use my favorite scale, the Kurd, as an example.
(D) A Bb C D E F G A
While we could fairly easily say that the Kurd scale is a natural minor scale (in this example D natural minor) the interval structure of the Kurd scale is much more specific than that.
Compared to the full natural minor scale you’ll see that it follows a much different interval pattern.
If we just say our handpan is in D natural minor, that could mean tons of different interval patterns depending on what notes of that scale our handpan has and in what order they are arranged.
All of the scales above could be loosely classified as D natural minor, but since each has a specific interval structure the overall mood and emotion of each scale will be slightly different from the next.
This unique interval structure that each handpan scale has, is where the real magic of the scale lies, and why just saying “natural minor” isn’t the most accurate way to describe the scale. Yes, the Kurd scale is under the larger category of natural minor based scales but is its own unique subset of that.
Rather than saying D natural minor, F# natural minor, E natural minor, etc. we can instead say D Celtic, F# Kurd, E Integral, etc. and have a much more specific understanding of our interval structure.
3. People Like Catchy Names!
“La Sirena”, Spanish for “The Mermaid”, and “Ursa Minor”, named after the famed constellation, are such beautiful names, right? Certainly more inspiring than saying E Dorian or B natural minor! Not only do I think these names are an appropriate reflection of the beauty of this instrument, but I also believe that using these terms can make things much easier for beginner musicians. Over the years I have sat with many first-time handpan players and watched as their eyes glaze over with boredom or confusion when having to give them a music theory crash course to understand the differences of the various scales. (And don’t even get me started on trying to explain transposition!) Handpan scale names make things fun, memorable, and easy to understand for first time players who can often feel overwhelmed with all of the technical mumbo jumbo.
In the end, it’s useful to know both the names of the various handpan scales and the larger parent key they belong to so we can communicate effectively with both handpan players and non-handpan players alike.
Don’t let all the music theory terminology scare you off, just trust your ears. Remember the words of Jazz great Duke Ellington “If it sounds good, it is good.”